No matter what that Hillbilly Elegy guy says, not everyone who lives in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is a laid-off coal miner yearning for the companies to befoul the schoolyards with coal dust again.
In fact, when fracking took off in the early aughts, activists living in small towns and on reservations protested the fossil-fuel infrastructure snaking through their lands. And they're still out there today. Madeline ffitch's first novel, Stay and Fight, is about those kinds of people living in one of those kinds of towns.
The character Helen, a Seattle-born thirtysomething hippie-anarchist with a BA in social work, has literally entered the Alighierian "dark wood" period of her life. She purchases 20 acres of coal company land on the outskirts of a college town that sounds a lot to me like Athens, Ohio (where, reportedly, ffitch was charged with a felony for protesting a fracking site in 2012; she ended up pleading and taking a misdemeanor).
Eventually, Helen convinces Karen and Lily, a lesbian couple with a baby boy on the way, to build a house with her on the land, forming a matriarchal "wolf pack" that lives off the grid. The only man in their lives is Rudy, a chaotic-good, ponytailed arborist who sleeps outside and, somewhere in the middle of the book, becomes a fervent evangelist for the benefits of fruit-tree stewardship. Some of the book's funniest moments happen when he radicalizes Helen on that issue and the two embark on a renegade Johnny Appleseed quest.
Together they make a family bound less by blood than by a sense of shared purpose and ideals: sustainability, communal living, and the kind of freedom they sum up as the "dignity of risk." Free from the trappings of corporate culture and most state obligations, Karen whittles spoons and chairs while Helen forages for nettles, gathers barrels of acorns, hunts raccoons, and hauls freshly killed deer from the roadside. When Perley, the boy, is born, the women raise him in the ways of the woods, but also in the ways of the noble elves in ElfQuest, a comic-book series from the 1970s that ends up hilariously informing most of Perley's worldview.
As a guy from the Midwest whose early literary loves included Gary Paulsen's Hatchet and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, I can read survivalist stuff paired with cramped- family-dynamics stuff all day, but ffitch, with her excellent sense of pacing, knew better than to spend too long on any of it. And she doesn't romanticize homesteader life, either. The characters fight like any family fights. Outside smells "like diesel oil and sawdust... like rendered guts and compost... like the shit pile."
If the powers that be turn this into an award-winning HBO drama, which they should, they better not fuck with ffitch's language, or I'll chain myself to an excavator. She balances her good, clean, quick hick sentences with the natural lyricism of just using the actual names of trees and power tools. That's hard to do without sounding like you're trying too hard.
Through the lives of these characters, ffitch also troubles the false dichotomy between action that results in "lasting change" and action that results in a broadcast news story. Every action, no matter how small or big or illegal, can make lasting change. The way to shape those changes for the better, as the title suggests, is to stay and fight for whatever you consider home.